The Big Getting Bigger

Over the last few weeks there has been another flurry of big wine companies buying up some other producers. Copain, Patz & Hall, Far Niente and Nickel & Nickel received some new investors or were purchased outright. Naturally for us little guys there is a sense of, “a few more bite the dust” when the reality is we haven’t seen the changes that are going to be made (if any) to the wineries that were purchased.

There have been plenty of large and small family wineries and brands that have been swallowed up by larger conglomerates. Some of those companies didn’t last long, others saw some changes to the portfolio and some were left to operate almost as-is.

For example:

Inglenook winery, well before director Francis Ford Coppola purchased it, was sold in December 1964 to a marketing firm based in San Francisco. Shortly there-after it was purchased again by Hueblein Incorporated in 1969 when they purchased a large chunk of that marketing firm. Prior to that series of purchases the wines being produced by Inglenook, dating back to the 1940s, were considered some of the best that Napa had to offer. Post-sale to Hueblein they immediately used the recognition of the Inglenook name to kick out more low-quality “jug” wine onto the market. That attempt to ride the wave of past iconic vintages failed and as a result decimated the once great reputation that Inglenook had as a producer.

On the flip side you could look at Freemark Abbey which was purchased multiple times since its founding in 1939 (up to that date the property was actually Lombarda Cellars which was purchased by a few San Francisco businessmen). Over the coming decades the winery changed hands a few times and ended up being purchased by Jackson Family Wines (Kendall Jackson for those not in the know) after the previous owner filed for Chapter 11 in late 2005. To this day some of the old, and new, Freemark Abbey wines continue to standout of the crowd. At the very least the wines have stayed true to their style as far as I can tell. It also helps that they have had Ted Edwards as their winemaker since 1985.

With this most recent round of purchases we will all get to wait and see what happens. Until then I am happy to give any company the benefit of the doubt. As Napa, Sonoma and other regions continue to see consolidation it will make the world of wine that much smaller. It is always my hope that these companies stay true to the brands and lands they are purchasing.

For us little guys it does feel like a bit of a let down. Plus it means that some of us now get to compete against the big guys and gals more often. There is a touch of that “let’s fight the man” attitude but let’s face it, there are plenty of awesome wines being kicked out by companies large and small. While it may suck to see more small, medium and large wineries/brands get scooped up it is also the nature of the business. In one sense if that leads to more homogenization of the wines under those umbrellas it makes life easier for small producers to stand out of the crowd that packs the grocery store or wine shop shelf. On the flip side we get to contend with companies that have what seems like an unlimited budget for sales and marketing while we try to scrape up cash to pay for our next bottling run.

I’d never tell anyone to shy away from purchasing a wine or other product they enjoy simply because they are owned by a large company. I know I have enjoyed plenty of products that come from immense conglomerates (god bless those Flamin’ Hot Cheetos). However, the ability to have a personal relationship with a company goes a long way in my book. Having to put faith in the man behind the curtain can be tough to do.


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